For the love of all things Woolf

8 Feb

This summer, I had the extraordinary opportunity to spend six weeks studying at Gonville and Caius College of the University of Cambridge, though the University of New Hampshire’s summer program. While there, I worked like a mad woman trying to finish my thesis, pulling late nights in the gorgeous Caius library, staying up until it was almost light out in my dorm room, and even skipping a jaunt around London to settle into a cafe along the Thames with my laptop. If my thesis was awful, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Caius Library

A view from the balcony of the library at Gonville and Caius, where I pored over biographies of and letters written by Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath to write my recently published essay "White Goddess Ghosts."

In any case, while I was at Cambridge, I started to get a nagging feeling. First of all, it was beautiful. I was in awe of the whole place and the whole experience of being there. A simple night out for a glass of wine landed me in the pub where Watson and Crick announced they’d discovered DNA, or “the secret to life.” Everywhere you roamed, there was historic architecture, lovely views, and the imprints of the brilliant minds who taught, researched, and studied there.

So what was that nagging feeling? I could have diagnosed it as indigestion and moved on. But the writer in me–the part of me that is trained as a journalist to hunt down leads and find explanations–decided to turn the lens inward. Naturally (as most things in my life do) that led me to Virginia Woolf. I began to think about her book A Room of One’s Own and started to reflect upon my surroundings at Cambridge.

That led me to Newnham College, where Woolf delivered her speech “Women and Writing,” which is also, I found out, where American Fulbrighter Sylvia Plath studied when she was at Cambridge. In high school, my dream college was Smith, where Plath had gone, and I wished I could have afforded to go there after I’d gotten my acceptance letter. The year I got into Smith and had to turn it down was also the year I first read a Woolf novel: first Mrs. Dalloway and then To the Lighthouse. My love of Woolf would expand into what some might call a full-blown obsession in college, as I’ve read almost all of her novels, short stories, letters, diaries, and essays.

Me in a Newnham courtyard, in front of the building where Woolf delivered the speech that would one day become her iconic book A Room of One's Own.

In any case, my interest in Woolf and Plath is not purely academic. There’s something about reading a Woolf novel that is such a moving experience: as if she’s found a way to put into words what deeply-covered things we all feel everyday, presenting it in the simplest of moments that would otherwise seem inconsequential.

When I got to Newnham, I took a tour and visited the places where Woolf and Plath had been, and read up on the history of Newnham’s status as an all-women’s college. Finally, after several visits, interviews, and hours of researching Plath and Woolf, things started to make sense. That nagging feeling was born out of something real. Many drafts later, I’d completed my essay “White Goddess Ghosts,” which just this month was published by the Montreal Review.

I’d try to explain that feeling here, but it’s much better expressed in the essay. If you’re interested, please do head over to the Montreal Review’s site to read, via the link above!

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